What we can learn from 'the real Norma Rae'? (video)
Last fall, Crystal Lee Sutton -- a woman whose bravery in organizing textile workers in the 1970s was immortalized in the film "Norma Rae -- died of brain cancer after battling her insurance company for years.
As Facing South wrote in January:
Formerly Crystal Lee Jordan, Sutton was fired from her job folding towels at the J.P. Stevens textile plant in her hometown of Roanoke Rapids, N.C. for trying to organize a union in the early 1970s. The firing came after she copied a racially divisive flier posted by management warning that blacks would run the union.
Her last action at the plant was writing the word "UNION" on a piece of cardboard and standing on her work table, leading her co-workers to turn off their machines in solidarity. The incident was memorialized in the 1979 film, in which the character inspired by Sutton was played by actress Sally Field.
Below is a video of a moving memorial service held in Sutton's honor in Greensboro, N.C. in January, 2010, featuring friends, family and labor activists.
Among the speakers was Ajamu Dillahunt, a long-time Southern union activist and co-chair of the Institute for Southern Studies board, whose comments start at the 4:00 mark:
Dillahunt, who began his speech by saying "In 2010, we need hundreds and thousands of Crystal Lee Suttons," went on to say the following:
Today we join those assembled and thousands around the world to lift up the amazing and courageous life of Crystal Lee Sutton, the real "Norma Rae." Her death in September of last year brings to an end a life that was inspirational to all those who love justice and deplore oppression.
Sister Sutton's determined efforts to empower workers in her textile plant will forever remain a part of working class history that is too often hidden from those who have benefited from it and those who need to learn its lessons.
We are compelled to say that that history is connected to the black freedom struggle in the South that fought, and continues to fight, for civil, human and democratic rights. Her work in Roanoke Rapids, against great opposition, was side by side with African-American workers who suffered under the harsh working conditions in the plant and in society. She united with them, and them with her, to fight the employer. This is as it always should be.
As life would have it, Crystal Lee Sutton in her final years, as a victim and a fighter, became a leader in the struggle for a decent and humane health care system. She raised her voice to let people know about the disgusting and criminal practices of the health insurance industry, as they delayed a decision approving critical medications to treat her cancer.
She was not only standing up for herself, but was shining light on an enemy of the working people in this country at a vital time in our struggle for universal health care.
Crystal Lee Sutton, presente.
Chris Kromm is executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies and publisher of the Institute's online magazine, Facing South.